Welcome Home Zera Yisrael (Seeds of Israel)
I first encountered this phrase, Welcome Home, when I dropped my son off at Camp Kalsman, a Jewish overnight camp. My son asked me why the camp counselors all greeted us in this way. I shrugged and said they were trying to be welcoming, to make him comfortable since he’d be staying with them for a couple of weeks. But then, when I visited Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, I was greeted with the same phrase. Is this a spiritual welcoming I wondered?
Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin wrote in the 19th century, “the root of the soul of the seed of Israel can never be upended,” so every Jew, even those who are lost, will eventually find their way back into the arms of the Jewish people. The seed of Israel or Zera Yisrael Rabbi Hacohen refers to is someone of Jewish descent (today some argue this also includes people with a strong connection to Judaism), but is not Jewish according to Halakha (Orthodox Jewish) law, meaning they were not born to a Jewish mother. I am Zera Yisrael. I have the spark of Jewishness Rabbi Hacohen refers to in me; like many others who’ve discovered Jewish descent. But, all Jews do not recognize this spark.
Barbara Kessel in Suddenly Jewish, asks “What is it like to find out you are not who you thought you were?” In her book, she interviews people who were not raised Jewish but later learn they have Jewish descent. The book was published in 2000 when over-the-counter DNA testing was in its nascent stage. While Kessel doesn’t interview any NPEs (not parent expected like me), the Zera Yisrael she reaches out to includes:
- Crypto-Jews: these are descendants of people from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th-17th Century).
- Hidden Children: Jewish children who were usually taken from their parents and hidden in various ways to save them from the Nazi’s during World War II.
- Children of Holocaust Survivors
For many, what they deemed an odd affinity toward Judaism before the discovery of their Jewish roots now made sense. Many believe it is the Zera Yisrael who can help diversify and strengthen the future of the Jewish people. Kessel writes, “The impulse to find one’s context, one’s place in the galaxy is a basic need. . . These interviews give voice to that central element in the human soul.”
I agree with Kessel, humans want, dare I write need, to find our truth, our history, our peers, our extended family. After finishing my Intro to Judaism class, I knew I wanted to continue to explore Reform Judaism so I needed to find a Temple. I’ve visited four temples in the Greater Seattle area and only one has truly embodied this phrase “Welcome Home.”
You’d think I’d be a pro by now walking into a Temple and knowing what to do. While I’ve attended a number of services, I had never gone by myself. Zoey was with me every time I visited Temple Beth Am and the one time she was out of town, I brought a friend from my Intro to Judaism class so I wouldn’t have to go alone. At De Hirsch, one of my fellow Intro classmates was always with me. I was alone for the first time when I visited Temple B’nai Torah.
Ruth, a lovely woman from the Sisterhood retreat, had suggested I visit Temple B’nai Torah (TBT) but to wait until the new rabbi started. It was Rabbi Sydney’s first night and there I was sitting in my car in the parking lot trying to get up the nerve to go inside. I wasn’t sure my psyche could handle any more rejection but my soul craved learning more about Judaism. I told myself, “pull up your big girl pants and get in there.” So I did. I sat in the back but Ruth wouldn’t have any of that, she dragged me to the front to sit with her.
Rabbi Sydney’s story touched me. She’d come to Judaism in her twenties. I thought maybe here, at TBT I can find a place. And then the craziness of school and sports started. Plus my husband was deployed for a hurricane so I was alone for a few weeks, which made it difficult to add anything into my schedule. One morning Saturday morning after he’d returned, I again had to scold myself. “Get up and go!”
I quietly sat down in the clergy led Torah study class. The topic — philosophies of God. I chuckled to myself. This is why I love Reform Judaism, there is not a requirement that you believe in God, only that you’re thinking about, “struggling” with the idea. Yisrael is the name given to Jacob after he wrestled an angel. Yisrael, Israel, to struggle with God. This is the heart of being Jewish, to confront God, whatever you think God may or may not be.
After Torah Studies, I attended Saturday’s Shabbat service. It was small, only about 25 people. As soon as Rabbi Sydney started singing, my eyes started to tear up. Her beautiful voice and the melody touched a deep part of my soul. I could feel it filling a space in me that has been empty my entire life. Even though I tried, I couldn’t stop the tears from silently streaming down my face. It had been so long since my soul felt at home, I was home.
In this new year 5780, I can start anew. I will make the memories, memories my heart yearns for, that should’ve been mine but for a twist of fate. L’Shana Tova!
“Nine times out of ten, finding out who you are is the most life-affirming adjustment you can make.” Paul Goldreich, an English Psychoanalyst writes in Suddenly Jewish.